Union Blues

A collection of Atlantic writings assesses the uncertain future of the European Union

As the European Union marks the 50th anniversary of its founding, there is much to celebrate. But there is also much (such as the likelihood of a European constitution) that remains uncertain. In recent years, The Atlantic has published several articles assessing the European Union's future and exploring why it might fail or succeed.

In 1999, in an economic analysis of the developing union, Robert Levine toured Europe for a firsthand look at how the emerging European Monetary Union, the economic arm of the EU that was set up to introduce the euro as the sole European currency, was playing out. He concluded that the success of the EMU, and thus to some degree the success of the EU, depended on economic growth and reduced unemployment rates. Analyzing the EMU's ability to meet these goals, Levine wrote:

To join the union, applicants were required to "converge" by this year on four criteria: low inflation, a narrow range of interest rates, stable exchange rates, and budget deficits no greater than three percent of GDP. Growth and employment were mentioned only in passing.

This oversight resulted in economic troubles, according to Levine. Historically, the EU favored policies that stimulated economic growth and job creation, but in the nineties, the EMU focused on stemming inflation. Growth stagnated. Unemployment rates in both France and Germany eventually soared above ten percent. Levine predicted that such poor economic conditions would eventually cause the countries of the EU to distance themselves from one another. "Once the euro is in place," he wrote, "not even 1920s-style failure should cause the collapse of the EMU. But failure will not lead to political integration; crisis is more likely to encourage nationalism."

While Levine anticipated that a faltering economy would fragment Europe, he also suggested that a successful EMU might be sufficient to unify it. He wrote:

But whatever combination of old American and new European ideas set the model, the success of the EMU would lead toward a Europe that can be defined at least as loosely confederal if not more tightly federal. Whether that is desirable is up to the Europeans to say.

In "Does Democracy Need Voters?" (March 2002 Atlantic) Jonathan Rauch likewise expressed worry about the European Union's shaky foundations, and argued that European political leaders have long been guiding the EU without the consent of their voting public. As he wrote, "To the great architects of the EU (and some of them were great), voters were not assets and collaborators but pesky obstacles on the path toward the common continental good."

In fact, Rauch found the EU's success at the time surprising, and predicted it would not last:

Europe's unprecedented and, it must be said, surprisingly successful effort to create a Europe-wide democracy without a Europe-wide electorate has finally hit a wall. The EU plans to admit twelve new members in the next few years. Getting the existing members to agree on anything is hard enough; twelve new ones may cause total paralysis.

Rauch argued that the solution for Europe's discord was a constitution, and outlined the risks of continuing without one:

An opaque and inadequately democratic EU will alienate its citizens and ultimately destabilize itself; it will dither when it should act and act when it should dither; it will be tugged to the left of its citizenry by the activists and intellectuals who dominate Europe's elite; and it will denude the democratic legacy that millions of Europeans and Americans have died to bestow.

Given Europe's economic troubles and the floundering constitution, the EU's prospects may seem dim. But these setback may simply represent growing pains, as Charles A. Kupchan wrote in "The End of the West" (November 2002 Atlantic):

To be sure, Europe is not a centralized federation, and its integration is proceeding in fits and starts. But political entities that take shape by stitching together previously separate states always emerge tentatively. The United States began as a loose confederation in 1781. After that formula proved too weak to sustain the Union, America opted for a tighter federation in 1789. It then took roughly a hundred years—not to mention a bloody civil war—for the Union to strengthen its governing bodies, nurture a national identity that transcended state loyalties, and project a geopolitical voice beyond its neighborhood. Europe has been working at political union for about five decades—and faces many hurdles in the years ahead. But the EU is already coming of age as a collective force; it is on, if not well ahead of, schedule.

Indeed, Kupchan makes the point that the EU's rise is certain—and that the U.S. had better learn to adjust to it. The annual economic output of the EU rivals that of the U.S. and the euro has quickly evolved into a stable, trusted currency that has been gaining on the dollar in recent years. A growing membership, along with increasing consolidation of armed forces and diplomatic power, will hasten the climb. He concludes:

History is coming full circle. After breaking away from the British Empire, the United States came together as a unitary federation, emerged as a leading nation, and eventually eclipsed Europe's Great Powers. It is now Europe's turn to ascend and break away from an America that refuses to surrender its privileges of primacy.

Europe will inevitably rise up as America's principal competitor. Should Washington and Brussels begin to recognize the dangers of the growing gulf between them, they may be able to contain their budding rivalry. Should they fail, however, to prepare for life after Pax Americana, they will ensure that the coming clash of civilizations will be not between the West and the rest but within a West divided against itself.